Why Use Hardware Synthesizers?

Synthesizers have an utterly grand history. Within the context of working with them in a modern DAW, many musicians question the need to have hardware synthesizers at all when so many software synthesizers are available and arguably easier to use. One can get a lot of mileage out of physical synthesizers though, and some might say sounds that are simply unattainable by simply using software. After all, non-software synthesizers have different components that set them apart from what are essentially computer programs on the software-only side that introduce things that can’t easily or at all be reproduced digitally.

There’s a joy that’s hard to describe when you’re working with a synthesizer that’s right in front of you, away from the computer screen, and outfitted with several knobs, sliders and fun quirky architectural designs.

Mario Mathy is having too much fun with hardware synthesizers…

Personally, I utilize both fairly evenly. There are times where the sound I want is possible in a software plugin, and yet there are times when the sound I am trying to formulate was popularized on a particular synth sitting somewhere in my studio. Do you remember the progressive trance fad of the late 1990s? A popular sound in those days for instance was what Roland called in their JP-8000 synthesizer the Supersaw waveform. It features several slightly detuned waveforms that defined an entire genre. It’s quite easy to come up with similar sounds on a JP-8000 or JP-8080 today and this synthesizer is still yet capable of even more. It has a particular sound too, regardless of which patch or performance I have loaded in its memory. Additionally, chaining a device like an Eventide Blackhole Reverb or a BOSS RV-500 behind it, I come up with sounds found through happy mistakes much more often than when I load up a software instrument and play around with an init patch with the same old software effects plugins I have available for every other song I work on.

So why use physical synthesizers? First, variance. And second, there are still legitimately some sounds that software instruments, even attempted clones, struggle to replicate. And lastly, third, fun! This article attempts to cover the concept of hardware synthesizers for people that have only previously used software instruments but understand the basic concept of sending notes to an instrument and getting sound out. Although, it is also useful for the person that has bought their first desktop synth or rackmount synth that doesn’t have its own keyboard and relies on external MIDI data to effectively use it.

Ports On A Synth

Synthesizers have a lot of differences between vendor, make, and model. Some have built in effects, some can act as effects processors for specific inputs, some can play multiple instruments on different channels and route them to different outputs. Synthesizers though from any vendor can usually be trusted to include the following as a base standard: one MIDI in, one MIDI out, and either a mono out or a stereo out. While some synths have more features and more connectivity, let’s focus on that basic set of ports.

Behringer DeepMind 12D, we want to focus on its audio outputs and MIDI in and out ports

First, what is MIDI? Can I run audio through it? Can I run MIDI through audio cables? I don’t understand! Don’t despair. MIDI is simply a simple messaging protocol designed to send and receive data between MIDI devices. This data can be exposed to a computer running a DAW via the use of a MIDI interface. Most DAWs, in an effort to make software instruments easier to handle, actually confuse the subject of hardware synthesizers for many users I think. In most DAWs, you load up an instrument track and you have your audio and piano roll all on one track. Keep in mind that this is a shortcut designed to help composers. And for virtual instruments, it makes sense. If you need to record the audio out from that virtual instrument, you’d just route it to another channel or bus and record there, easy peasy. In a DAW utilizing a hardware synth though, you generally need to create at least a MIDI track for notes, knob values, program changes and sysex dumps and either a mono or stereo audio track for monitoring and recording. This gets more complicated when you start factoring in MIDI editor/librarians, synths with mulitple internal instruments that can be controlled per channel, etc, so let’s keep this basic at the moment.

MIDI Interfaces for MIDI Devices

For the MIDI setup of controlling a hardware synthesizer, I highly suggest using either the MOTU Midi Express 128 or the MOTU Midi Express XT. Beginners will probably want to start with the Midi Express 128 because it’s USB and easier to set up and manage. The features of the Express XT will probably be lost on most people and the benefits of running MIDI over USB can’t be discounted for proper housekeeping (at least in macOS). Remember not to put the Midi Express 128 on a USB hub, unless it’s directly from a Thunderbolt USB hub as hub connection encapsulation will introduce jitter to your MIDI channels which you absolutely do not want. Are there other vendors out there besides MOTU? Can’t you just use a USB to a single MIDI in/out adapter? You can, but I would only use them in the early stages of becoming acquainted with working with MIDI in conjunction with external MIDI devices. Both MOTU MIDI devices I mentioned support 8 MIDI in and 8 MIDI out and are relatively cheap.

MOTU Midi Express 128 front and back

So I mentioned MIDI in and MIDI out a moment ago, let’s consider the importance of that with regard to an hardware syntheszier. On the ports available on a hardware synth, you’ll likely find two MIDI ports marked in, out and sometimes thru. To avoid jitter and software quirks with thru mode, I’d encourage you for now at least to focus on the in and out MIDI ports. Also, on your MIDI interface, if you have a MOTU Midi Express unit, you’ll also see sets of MIDI ports marked in and out. When running a MIDI cable between your instrument to your MIDI interface, you’ll want to run the output MIDI port on the hardware instrument to the input MIDI port on the MIDI interface. Likewise, you’ll want to run the input MIDI port on the hardware instrument to the output MIDI port on the MIDI interface. Confused? Think of it like a water fall: water flows out the hardware synth’s out INTO the MIDI interface and water flows out of the MIDI interface INTO the hardware synth.

Party Like It’s 1983

Couldn’t this just use a single cable? This is confusing! It might seem this way to you at the time, but this actually works in your favor. Save for some quirks of very early MIDI-enabled hardware synthesizers, the format and method of communication hasn’t changed much if at all since 1983! How is this crazy old technology working in your favor then? Because I can take a Roland Juno-106 released in 1984 and plug it up to my MIDI interface and talk to it from my DAW effortlessly without any problems. MIDI is quite incredible!

Roland Juno-106, one of the first synthesizers to use MIDI. Still compatible today with contemporary DAWs. Amazing!

It’s DAW time Part 1: MIDI Inputs

So now that you have your synthesizer is plugged up to your MIDI interface which is connected to your computer where your DAW is running, you should be able to successfully complete two tasks: 1) sending MIDI data from the DAW, and 2) receiving MIDI data into the DAW from the instrument.

In your DAW, create a MIDI channel. The process for this is slightly different in every DAW, however it’s a basic enough concept that if you go to add a track you should be able to choose to add a MIDI track. Some DAWs have what’s known as an Instrument Track. This is not what you want because as I mentioned earlier those are combined MIDI/audio tracks used exclusively for virtual instruments. When you add your MIDI track in the DAW, you’ll now want to configure the input and output MIDI ports for the instrument. If your MIDI interface has multiple ports, use the corresponding port to the hardware synth you are attempting to control. You’ll additionally have the option to choose a MIDI channel on that port. Some DAWs output this to all, but go ahead and set it to channel 1.

To record MIDI data (like the notes you play on a keyboard or changes to knob values), arm your MIDI track for recording. This is very much like arming an audio track for recording. Starting recording on your DAW and then press some random notes on your hardware synths keyboard. Stop recording from your DAW, and you should now see those notes as the DAW captured them via MIDI.

But my hardware synth doesn’t have a keyboard, how do I capture notes from it? In this case, with the exception of capturing MIDI cc values for knob/slider controls and possibly sysex data, you don’t and we can move onto the next test.

It’s DAW time Part 2: MIDI Outputs

So if you were able to complete the input MIDI recording, you should now have some sort of MIDI data in front of you. If you do, disarm your MIDI track in the DAW and press play. If you have both MIDI input and output working correctly you should now see your synth probably makes some lights denoting activity in receiving MIDI data. If you’ve completed both, you’ve just controlled your synth with the DAW (outputs) and recorded MIDI data from your synth into your DAW (inputs).

It’s DAW time Part 3: Monitoring and Recording

Now that you’ve got your MIDI ports set on the track channel, you’ll probably want to hear and record your hardware synth! Depending on how you have your hardware synth’s audio plugged into your interface, you’ll want to create either a mono or stereo audio track in your DAW. Once this is done, you want to change the audio input source to the ports used. To be clear, your audio interface will likely have two or more audio inputs. The ones corresponding to the audio output of the hardware synth is what you want to choose. Now in your DAW, you will have options depending on the software you’re using. Some DAWs automatically monitor an audio track that is armed for recording while some you have to specifically set to monitor to listen and arm to record to record. After setting your audio track to monitor you should be able to hear your synth when you either press keys on the synths keyboard or when you hit play in your DAW and allow it to play the previously recorded MIDI data you recorded.

Multiple MIDI channels on a ports

Some hardware synths, romplers and samplers support up to 16 instruments that can be independently controlled. A popular hardware synth with independent instrument controls is the Access Virus. I have an Access Indigo2, which is an Access Virus C with a three octave keyboard built in. The sounds of the Indigo2 can get really amazing and complex when you layer multiple instruments together and they can be independently controlled by channels on the MIDI port. I can load patches on each channel, and even play multiple parts with a single synth such as having the Indigo2 which I keep on port MOTU Midi Express 128 (A) 2 loaded with a bass patch on port 2 channel 1, plucks on port 2 channel 2, pads on port 2 channel 3, and lead synth patch on port 2 channel 4. To take control of all of thsee channels, in my DAW I’ll want to create 4 different MIDI tracks using the same port but pointed to the corresponding channel and either play and record by channel or draw out the notes by hand with a mouse or some other MIDI input device like a Novation LaunchPad. Some synths pipe all channel audio out through a single interface (like the Roland Boutique TR-09), but on my Access Indigo2 I have up to six audio outputs I can use in mono or stereo mode. If I use different audio outs on the hardware synth, then like how I set up MIDI tracks for each channel, I’ll create multiple audio tracks in the DAW for each corresponding audio input on the audio interface.

The Mystery Islands Music Virus|HC editor/librarian. Notice on the left it allows you to modify each of the 16 channel instruments available on a Virus C-class. In the DAW, each patch corresponds to a specific MIDI channel on the port it’s connected to.

Fun Things To Try

When working with multiple synths on different ports or a combination of that and an instrument with multiple instruments per channel on a single port, I like to periodically and rather randomly drag MIDI events from one MIDI track in the DAW to a separate one. You never know what might sound good in a different patch on a different instrument and this can lead to many happy accidents.

Also, when arming a specific MIDI track to record, try arming multiple MIDI tracks to record to start testing out laying sounds. What will happen is that as long as your MIDI tracks that are selected have the same input MIDI channel (commonly set to a master MIDI controller in most home studios), you played on that MIDI controller will send that notation, velocity, and sometimes aftertouch MIDI data (if your controller and hardware synths support it) to multiple instruments at once.